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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Life Serving Others (on Aime Cesaire)

On April 17, 2008, the great Martinique-born poet Aimé Césaire died in Fort-de-France at the age of 94. The news came from Beatrice Mousli, while I was dining with her, Paul Vangelisti, and Dennis Phillips at a Lebanese restaurant in Orange, California, were we had been attending the & Now Festival for literature.

Césaire had been the first choice, in 1994, for the America Awards for International Writing, given by my Contemporary Arts Educational Project, and had long been an important figure in my reading. Indeed he was a poet to whom many Angelenos felt close, in particular Will Alexander, whose work was influenced by the negritude poets, and Césaire’s major translator, Clayton Eshleman. I had planned to publish a new translation of some of his work as one of the last books published by Sun & Moon Press; but, although I had obtained the rights, the publication, alas, never came about.

Born in Basse-Pointe, Martinque in 1913, Césaire was the son of Fernand Elphège, a man educated as a teacher, but who worked as a manager of a sugar estate. The poet’s mother was a seamstress, and the family lived in fairly harsh conditions. As Césaire later portrayed it:

And the bed of planks from which my race has risen, all my race
from this bed of planks on its feet of kerosene cases, as if the old
bed had elephantiasis, covered with a goat skin, and its dried banana
leaves and its rags, the ghost of a mattress that is my grandmother’s
bed (above the bed in a pot full of oil a candle-end whose flame looks
like a fat turnip, and on the side of the pot, in letters of gold: MERCI).

Receiving a scholarship, Césaire traveled to Paris in 1931, studying at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and with fellow students Léopold Senghor (from Senegal) and Léon Damas (from French Guiana) founded the magazine L’Etudiant noir (The Black Student) with the stated attempt “to reunite black people who are considered French by law and nationality to their own history, traditions, and languages, to the culture which truly expresses their soul.” A decade later, this would be transformed into the concerns of negritude, encompassing all persons of African descent, and later enlarged to include black cultures internationally.

In 1936 the poet began work on his famed Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Memorandum on My Martinique), a work published in 1939. In 1937 he married fellow Martinican Suzanne Roussi, and in 1939 returned with her to Martinique with their young son. There he became a teacher at the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, teaching the psychiatrist and essayist Franz Fanon and inspiring the poet-novelist Édouard Glissant.

Throughout the 1940s Césaire and his wife edited the influential journal Tropiques while he wrote many of his most important poetic works, including Armes miraculeuses (1946), Soeil cou coupé (1948), and, supported by the French Communist Party, became the major of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French Assembly for Martinique, the former position which he held until 2001.

In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungry, Césaire resigned from the Communist Party, stating his position in Lettre à Maurice Thorez. Two years later he founded the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.

In the 1950s and 60s he continued writing major poetic works such as Corps perdu (1950), Ferrements (1960), and Cadastre (1961), as well as plays such as Et les Chiens se taisaient, La Tragédie de roi Christophe, Une Tempête (an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest), and Une Saison au Congo, a play about Patrice Lumumba, translated into English in 1968.

Césaire’s work, influenced by Surrealism, was filled with a heightened sense of language, presenting a world in which one could see and smell the magical world about:

with the slice of sky on a hunk of earth
you beasts who hiss into the face of this dead woman
you free ferns between the murderous rocks
at the extreme of the island between conches too vast for
their destiny
when noon sticks its canceled stamps on the tempestuous
folds of the she-wolf
beyond the frame of all known science
and the mouth in the linings of the nest satisfied with islands
gulped like a sou

(from “Magic,”
Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Dennis Kelly)

Césaire’s whole life might be said to represent a plea for Blacks throughout the world to work together against hatred, prejudice, and greed. But despite his attempts, he recognized also the immense difficulties, and perhaps the impossibility, of those goals. As the Sanza Player in A Season in the Congo predicts, each African country will be left to itself:

Fellow Africans, that’s the tragedy. A hunter catches sight of a crowned stork in
the tree top. Luckily the tortoise has seen the hunter. The stork is saved, you will
say. And indeed, the tortoise tells the big leaf, who’s supposed to tell the creeper,
who’s supposed to tell the bird. Oh no! It’s everybody for himself. Result: the
hunter kills the bird, takes the big leaf to wrap the bird in, and cuts the creeper to tie
up the leaf… And oh yes, I forgot. He even walks off with the tortoise. Africans,
my brothers! When will you understand.

(Translated by Ralph Manheim)
Los Angeles, June 15, 2008

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